Although she (Augustine’s mother) had warned me to guard my virginity, she did not seriously pay heed to what her husband had told her about me, and which she felt to hold danger for the future: for she did not seek to restrain my sexual drive within the limit of the marriage bond, if it could not be cut back to the quick.

The reason why she showed no such concern was that she was afraid that the hope she placed in me could be impeded by a wife. This was not the hope which my mother placed in [God] for the life to come, but the hope which my parents entertained for my career that I might do well out of the study of literature. Both of them, as I realized, were very ambitious for me.

Confessions (tr. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics, p. 28)

My son is only a toddler, but already I’ve felt the swell of ambition for him in my heart. He’s clever, quick on the uptake, and sweet natured. It’s not hard to find myself fantasizing about his future…and at the same time, little by little, making hypothetical trade-offs in my imagination about his character vs career. It’s very easy for me to say that character is more important for my son than success. It’s much harder to say that and really mean it.

My suspicion is that the triumph of ambition over character almost never happens intentionally, either for ourselves or for our children. It’s not a sudden, violent craving for success at all costs. Rather, for most people, it’s the quiet sum of dozens of little compromises, hundreds of little equivocations, and thousands of little, unsaid prayers. Good grades keep thrilling us even when the family devotions become rote. The money we save for college has glamor that the money we give at church doesn’t. It’s not so much that godly ambitions transfigure into evil ones. They just shrink.

For myself, my wife, and my children, born and unborn, I hope and pray that this lesson from Augustine will be written on my heart.

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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books.